Yuval Noah Harari, 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY (post #1)

This 2018 book is Harari’s third, of the three he’s published so far. It follows in ways from his second, HOMO DEUS (see here), in exploring some of its themes, but differs in being not a narrative, but a set of lessons, about where we are heading right now. The text is about 320 pages long; thus each lesson gets about 15 pages on average. This post covers about the first half of the book.

I keep trying to condense my notes to something useful, as opposed to simply dumping 8000 words of notes (as in this case) into a blog post. In this case I’ll retain titles and headings of the five parts of the book, and all 21 chapter headings, and then try to condense the chapter content into a couple lines, focusing on what he thinks the “lesson” is.

(It should be noted that Harari, as in his earlier books, uses certain terms — liberal, religion, intelligent design — in very specific ways, unlike their common meanings in ordinary discourse.)

The five parts consider the merger of infotech and biotech; how to react by controlling fears and being humble; then asks how to make sense of the world; then considers what our new story should be; and finally what we can say about the meaning of life.

— Summary —

Part I: The Technological Challenge

“Humankind is losing faith in the liberal story that dominated global politics in recent decades, exactly when the merger of biotech and infotech confronts us with the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered.”

Ch1, Disillusionment: the end of history has been postponed

  • The 20th century had the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. It seems the last won, with talk of the “march of progress”.
  • But then 2008 brought the global financial crisis; then 2016, with Brexit and Trump. Now it’s as if there is *no* story.
  • Liberalism is better than any alternative, but it’s bringing about ecological collapse and technological destruction.
  • So we need a new story.

Ch2, Work: when you grow up, you might not have a job

  • Infotech and biotech may leave many of us with nothing to do. Or needing to change jobs once a decade.
  • We need models for post-work societies. One model is UBI, universal basic income, with issues to be determined.
  • A goal might be to find meaningful pursuits, from sports to religion, e.g. ultra-Orthodox Jews who are poor but happy studying scriptures every day.

Ch3, Liberty: big data is watching you

  • We’re used to the idea of liberty as central: individuals have free will, the voter knows best, etc. But these are feelings, not about thinking, and people vote about even things they know nothing about, and that are against their better interests. This may be the Achilles’ heel of liberal democracy.
  • Algorithms can do better, e.g. to improve health care by monitoring bodies continuously. They could influence every part of our lives.
  • Yet issues with algorithms include trolley problems, and situations where we rely on emotions to make quick life-or-death decisions.
  • It’s unlikely AIs or robots will ever revolt, but they might remorselessly carry out their instructions. The danger is that bots will likely amplify human traits, our fears and our hatreds.

Ch4, Equality: those who own the data own the future

  • Inequality has grown as property has. It could split humanity into castes.
  • To prevent this, regulate the ownership of data. Privatizing data is difficult to understand; how would it work? “This may well be the most important political questions of our era.” 80b

Part II: The Political Challenge

“The merger of infotech and biotech threatens the core modern values of liberty and equality. Any solution to the technological challenge has to involve global cooperation. But nationalism, religion, and culture divide humankind into hostile camps and make it very difficult to cooperate on a global level.”

Ch5, Community: humans have bodies

  • Recall Facebook’s plan to build online communities. It was a noble idea but impractical; humans thrive in groups of a few dozen at most, and computers in fact disconnect us from our bodies.
  • How might Facebook encourage people to meet offline? Well it might pay its fair share of taxes, to encourage building those actual communities.

Ch6, Civilization: there is just one civilization in the world

  • Is there really a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the West and the Muslim World? No; it’s misleading; values intermix; tribes tend to coalesce over time. French and German, once distinct tribes, merged to become European, with a single economy. That’s the direction of history.
  • Some groups link, others coalesce. Increasingly, people across the globe share beliefs and practices, a common discourse of human rights, state sovereignty, and international law.
  • Now we have the Olympics, something inconceivable 1000 years ago, when continents didn’t know about one another, there was no international travel.
  • The world’s economies are unified. Around the dollar. The Islamic state didn’t abandon the dollar, or modern hospitals.
  • There may still be different religions, but in practice, almost all of us belong to the same civilization. So why then nationalism sweeping over the world?

Ch7, Nationalism: global problems need global answers

  • Nations were formed to solve problems that single tribes could not solve. Yet loyalty to a large group is difficult. And becomes a problem when patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultranationalism, the idea that one’s nation is supreme.
  • But can individual countries address the world’s big problems?
  • First was the threat of nuclear war. It did in fact reduce nationalism.
  • Second is climate change, an urgent problem that can’t wait. Fossil fuels must be retired.
  • Third is technological change, the disruption of infotech and biotech. There are no nationalist answers to this. Humanity is on the verge of a cosmic shift in which natural selection will give way to intelligent design.
  • The European Union would seem to be an example of a global approach to common problems.

Ch8, Religion: God now serves the nation

  • We can discuss how religion might solve three types of problems: technical; policy; and identity. But religion is largely irrelevant to the first and second, and on the third point constitutes part of the problem rather than a solution.
  • Religion has never been about farming or healthcare, but about interpretation. A priest doesn’t end a drought; he’s “somebody who knows how to justify why the rain dance failed, and why we must keep believing in our god even though he seems deaf to all our prayers.” 129.8
  • Science, in contrast, “gradually learns how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. Over the centuries, even the true believers have noticed the difference, which is why religious authority has been dwindling in more and more technical fields. This is also why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilization. When things really work, everybody adopts them.” 130t.
  • Thus there are, e.g., no distinct economic theories among Muslims. At one time religions promised to solve the ills of modernity, consumerism, et al, but they’ve had decades and not made any progress. Decisions are made on modern economic theories – and then justified via the Quran or Bible, because anything can be justified by finding the right passage and interpreting it to suit one’s purpose. Economic ideas from the holy books simply don’t work in the modern world (example Gandhi).
  • Yet religious identities are important to many people; they determine us vs. them. That makes religion part of the problem: the handmaid of nationalism, each group seeing global problems only in terms of how it would affect themselves.

Ch9, Immigration: some cultures might be better than others

  • More and more people seek better lives by crossing borders; nations confront, assimilate, or expel them. There are three terms to the process:
    • 1, Host country allows immigrants in;
    • 2, In return, the immigrants must embrace the norms of the host country, even if it means giving up some of their own;
    • 3, If immigrants assimilate to a sufficient degree, over time they become full members of the host country; they become us.
  • These give rise to four kinds of debates.
    • Debate 1. To what extent does the host country allow immigrants in?  Is absorption a duty or a favor?
    • Debate 2. How far should assimilation go? Abandon traditions and adopt a liberal worldview? Some accuse immigrants of intolerance, misogyny, etc. 144b. Are there unique values of any particular country that must be accepted by immigrants?
    • Debate 3, How much do immigrants need to do before they become first class citizens? How many generations? Ultimately this is a clash between personal and collective timescales. Past civilizations took centuries to assimilate. But in the modern world 40 years can be an eternity. How can a person who’s lived all her life in a country be told to “go back” to place she’s never lived in?
    • Debate 4, Finally is the issue of whether both sides live up to their obligations. Those terms need exact definitions before this debate can be resolved.
  • Is there any way we can say that some cultures might be superior to others? It’s easy to imagine examples of cultures (e.g. Coldia and Warmland) with different social values keyed to their climates. Most people aren’t explicitly racist; but now such issues are couched in “culturist” terms (e.g. Trump’s remarks). But culturist arguments are contextual, vague, and lack benchmarks.
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